A CHALLENGE TO SYRIAC PALEOGRAPHY: USING DIGITAL TOOLS TO CONTEST CURRENT SCHOLARSHIP
Manuscripts are important because they provide information about ancient times. Historians use manuscripts to understand ancient peoples and what they believed was worthy of being recorded. Even the manner in which a manuscript is written can tell scholars about a culture. Paleography is the study of handwriting for the purpose of dating manuscripts. Dating back to the seventeenth century, paleography was originally done using only the eyes, but modern technology has facilitated new paleographical research methods. This project began as a test of new technology developed by Mount Holyoke Professor Michael Penn and Smith College Professor Nicholas Howe that uses digital handwriting analysis tools to compare the hands of different manuscripts with the result of matching the script styles of undated manuscripts with dated manuscripts. I conducted paleographical research using a database of 200 digitized, securely dated Syriac manuscripts ranging from the fifth to the eleventh century. These manuscripts were collected from libraries across the globe for the purposes of this project. Syriac is a form of the ancient language of Aramaic. In traditional Syriac paleographical scholarship, there are two early scripts: Estrangela and Serto. For the purposes of this project, I call this system of dividing Syriac into two hands the “Standard Model.” Using my sizable manuscript database, I challenge the standard model by using securely dated manuscripts to illustrate its flaws. I also propose a new paleographical schema for Syriac manuscripts: The Bush Model. My new model has more specific script categories that apply to a smaller date range, therefore, scholars will now be able to date manuscripts more accurately than ever before. While my project is only a case example in a particular linguistic tradition, the larger goal of this project is to serve as a model for other language groups that wish to use this software.